In “Heading South,” Laurent Çantet, French filmmaker of Montreal and Paris, offers a moderately interesting trio of middle-aged women who have taken their libidos on vacation in Haiti in the ’70s.

This film was made long before the terrible 2010 earthquake that ravaged this beautiful land and it’s sad to see what it once was.

In this re-viewing of “Vers Le Sud,” or “Heading South,” we spend 101 minutes on the hot sands of Port-au-Prince with some very hungry women and hot beach boys. This is no “Malibu Beach Blanket,” this is a serious, often too serious, study of the aching hearts and bodies of women of fading beauty who are no longer attractive to men their age at home.

In the summer of the late 70s, the women come down from the cold pavements and hearts of El Norte, and lie around with half-naked Haitian beach boys, getting their backs rubbed and oiled and sharing some booze and pot. The locals look at them with rose and “green” colored glasses, ignoring the wrinkles and treated hair.

Socrates may have thought the unexamined life is not worth living, but these three ladies are not interested in their scrapbooks, who they really are, what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it. This is Margaritaville for matrons. They’re here for the game of free sex.

“Welcome to paradise,” Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) says on the beach. “You’re going to have a ball.”

Ellen, now 55 and still glowing with some pretty warm embers, is from Boston and teaches at Wellesley when she’s back home, grading the papers of young things she resents for their beauty and freedom. But down here, without the sweaters and sensible shoes, she gets all the sexual freedom she wants with a young illiterate Haitian named Legba (Menothy Cesar). On the golden beaches she’s the dragon lady, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck and, yes, Charlotte Rampling.

Legba, along with a few other beach boys, has been at this game of musical beds in paradise since he was fifteen. It was back then that he was seduced by Brenda (Karen Young), a very uptight married lady from Georgia who had never, at 45, had an orgasm. Legba changed that.

Naturally Brenda, now divorced, never forgot her first “love.” Brenda is back to recreate past dreams, but she soon runs afoul of Ellen who has long claimed Legba for her own. When Ellen suspects she may be losing the race here, she applies the whip and retains the lead … for a bit.

The third lady in panting is Sue (Louise Portal), from Montreal. Sue is comfortable in her size l6 sarong and has her very own boytoy who is faithful to her. Sue is more nurturing, a middle class earth mother who would rather cuddle than wrestle.

Newcomer Brenda (some will remember from the great HBO series, “The Sopranos”) promises trouble from the start. She carries a lot of baggage with her, some contain her past, some her bag of uppers and downers that she consumes three at a time washed down with booze. She’s wonderful.

Brenda falls in love with Legba all over again, but Ellen has brains and wiles. She has been Legba’s lover for six years and books him in advance like a dinner reservation or beach chair. Legba has always been content. He gets new clothes and gold charms and sleeps on clean sheets at night, but now, a very needy Brenda, who practically salivates all over him, draws him back in.

This summer, trouble is in the wind. This is the era of Haitian political darkness with “Baby Doc” Jean Claude Duvaliler and his roving gangs of hitmen ruling the streets with a reign of terror. Black people dare not speak up or raise their heads above the light, tourists with their dollars are exempt, and for the time being, safe.

So our three ladies who lust spend their days and nights trying to recapture the springtime of their youth, knowing all along they’ll soon have to dress for fall.

“Heading South” is spoken in French at times, and English for the most part. The boys speak only French of course, and there are subtitles.

Laurent uses a Eugene O’Neill device here that I found a tad annoying and unnecessary. Each one has a moment in the course of the film, and the privacy of their huts, to speak directly to us and catch us up on their backgrounds. But each of the actors is so good at what they do, that we know all we need to know in the first half hour.

Rampling is still a simmering bowl of dark soup, occasionally bubbling up, but never over. She has that old Lauren Bacall trick of remaining still and letting her glances tell us what we need to know.

Karen Young surprised me. I’ve watched her as a packaged and well-contained FBI agent in “The Sopranos” when she kept her hair back and her agent suit neatly pressed. Here, she emerges from that cocoon in bathing suit and loose, flowing, inexpensive summer cottons that blow that old image away. Young is of the Rachel Weisz school of acting, smart and sensual but with secret windows left open letting the hot breeze blow in.

Menothy Cesar, as Legba does as he is directed by Çantet, but little more. There is no Denzel Washington lurking here.

A delightful surprise is Lys Ambroise’s Albert, the maitre de of the hotel. Albert is the son and grandson of old Haitian rebels who loathed the white man. “My grandfather would be shamed if he could see my waiting on the white man … everything they touch turns to garbage.”

Like blacks of old, however, Albert keeps his thoughts to himself because the white women keep his job alive.

“Heading South,” is smart and crisp with nice dabs of the murky political overtones of the time, with the saving grace of boasting three fine actors in the leads.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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